Blessed Mary has a certain star quality about her
During these warm summer nights, many of us take to star gazing. We know certain constellations, such as the Big Dipper or the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). We can perhaps make out a planet or two. Even some of the stars like red Arcturus, or the three stars of the Summer Triangle (Deneb, Vega and Altair) are pretty noticeable, at least if someone points them out to you.
The North Star, or Polaris, is one of the stars most of us know. Situated at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, this star (actually a multiple star) has been used as a sailor’s guide for centuries. Because it lies above the earth’s celestial North Pole, Polaris appears to be fixed in the sky and is thus an aid to navigation, especially at sea when there are no other points of reference.
A lesser known name for Polaris is Stella Maris, or the “star of the sea.”
Another well-known star is the “morning star,” sometimes seen in the east just before dawn. It is actually not a star, but the planet Venus. Venus can also be the “evening star” appearing before sunset, depending on where the planet is in relationship to earth in its orbit. Venus is the second planet in our solar system; Earth is its direct neighbor.
Both titles — Stella Maris and Morning Star — are also used for Mary, the Blessed Virgin whose Assumption we celebrate Aug. 15. We may not often think of Mary as a star, since the biggest “star” of our tradition is probably Jesus, who has also been called the morning star and the day star. His birth was even heralded by a star according to Matthew’s Gospel. However, Mary has at least three claims to “star quality.”
Crowned with stars The first reading for the feast of the Assumption comes from the book of Revelation (11:19, 12:1-6, 10). Here we hear of a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” While this reference is interpreted to first have meant Israel – with the 12 stars reflecting the 12 tribes who brought forth the Messiah — the church has since earliest times also recognized this as a figure for Mary. Many statues of Mary show her crowned with 12 stars.
Star of the Sea Stella Maris is a bit of a play on words for Mary’s name – Maria in Latin and Miriam in Hebrew. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the name “Mary” was not a common one in Old Testament times and that early Christians used the Hebrew words for Lord (mar) to relate to Mary and bitter (mara) to tie Paschal significance to her name.
“Stella Maris” itself seems to have been an alteration of a reference that St. Jerome (d. 420) made to Mary’s name, interpreting it as stilla maris meaning “drop of the sea.” (The Latin for “sea” is maris.) Stilla (drop) became stella (star) later, perhaps through a copyist error.
Later saints, like Isidore of Seville (seventh century), picked up the usage. For example, St. Aelred (12th century) advised looking to Mary as a star to lead us on our journey on earth. St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the same century wrote, “If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation look to the star, call on Mary.”
And in the 13th century, St. Bonaventure wrote, “For Mary means a bitter sea, star of the sea, the illuminated or illuminatrix. Mary is interpreted Lady. Mary is a bitter sea to the demons; to men she is the star of the sea; to the angels she is illuminatrix, and to all creatures she is Lady.”
There are also Marian hymns using this title, with the best known being the Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) which became popular in the Middle Ages.
Morning Star Stella Matutina is a title for Mary that can be found in the Litany of Loreto and, as the Marian Library at the University of Dayton notes, dates to 14th century versions in Italy. The litany has been used at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome every Saturday since 1613.
In the 12th century, St. Bernard wrote about Mary as a star, noting how a star loses none of its radiance by reflecting the sun, just as Mary never lost her virginity in becoming the mother of God.
In the 19th century, Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that it was Mary’s “prerogative to be the Morning Star, which heralds in the sun. She does not shine for herself, or from herself, but she is the reflection of her, and our, redeemer, and she glorifies him. When she appears in the darkness, we know that he is close at hand.”
When Blessed John Paul II wrote his Marian encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, in 1987, he referred to Mary as the Morning Star, “the one who in the ‘night’ of the Advent expectation began to shine like a true ‘Morning Star’ (Stella Matutina). … from the time of her Immaculate Conception (Mary) preceded the coming of the Savior, the rising of the ‘Sun of Justice’ in the history of the human race” (n. 3).
So even if you haven’t much time to look up at the summer sky with its array of stars, you can still look to the woman crowned with 12 stars and let her point you to our rising sun: Jesus.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Stella Maris Parish in Door County; Vatican web site at www.vatican.va; www.sacred-destinations.com; Marian Library at the University of Dayton, campus.udayton.edu; www.carmelite.net; www.newmanreader.org; www.catholictradition.org